SEATTLE – The greatest day in the Seattle Sounders’ long, proud history started early.
Thanks to MLS Cup’s noon local kickoff time, the Rave Green-clad hordes began to descend on the city’s downtown almost from sunrise, packing into bars for breakfast-hour beers, thronging around Occidental Square hours ahead of the pregame march to the match route.
The supporters’ groups popped pyro, struck up their chants and hit the boulevard at a time when many might otherwise barely be contemplating brunch, or the day’s first caffeine dose. And they did so in numbers that even this soccer-mad city has never seen before.
“I came down early to Pioneer Square and to see people like everywhere at 8 in the morning on a Sunday is kind of crazy. I realized it was going to be big,” Sounders owner Adrian Hanauer related with a smile later in the day, after the Sounders' 3-1 win over Toronto FC. “Our great new partner Macklemore out there performing before he normally has his cup of coffee was pretty cool, and the whole day overall was pretty special.”
The crowd of 69,274 that packed into CenturyLink Field was record-setting, the biggest this hulking, NFL-proportioned venue has ever hosted for any sporting event and the largest for soccer in Washington State history. And it probably could’ve been bigger still.
“It was such a great feeling to play today in front of 70,000 people and if this stadium was bigger I think we would have more than 70,000 people,” said Sounders midfielder Gustav Svensson, who played for Sweden in last summer’s World Cup in Russia.
“It felt like entire Seattle was behind us – we felt that before the game, we felt it under the game and we feel it after the game.”
Admitted goalkeeper Stefan Frei: “Walking out, I got a little teary-eyed, because it’s a huge moment. You realize this before the game starts, the few precious moments before and you’re literally inside the powderkeg – it’s incredible, it’s a dream come true.”
A packed, partisan house, to be sure – but one that had to spend most of the game’s first hour on tenterhooks as TFC seized the match’s initiative. Despite all that palpable home-field advantage, the gut-wrenching prospect of a stunning defeat on the big day suddenly loomed as a very real possibility.
“Well, I didn’t think it was our best performance,” said midfielder Cristian Roldan.
Noted Svensson: “If you win it, you win the entire thing. If you lose, it feels like you lost the entire season. So it’s a lot at stake.”
But TFC’s possession didn’t translate into many clear chances. And a timely, if fortunate, breakthrough materialized out of nowhere off the foot of Kelvin Leerdam, and the noise and color came flooding back into the arms and throats of the home faithful, leaving the visitors playing uphill.
The resourcefulness Seattle have shown throughout the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs, and in their tumultuous season’s most influential moments, had appeared yet again.
“Great teams find a way to win on your off days, on your bad days. We capitalized on our three opportunities that we had,” said Roldan. “Defensively we were OK, but no one’s going to remember that. That’s the most important thing. You win the game and you celebrate and you’re happy – everybody doesn’t remember the final.
“It certainly wasn’t our plan. The whole playoffs, I feel like, we were down possession. And we played three games at home – that’s unlike Seattle, right? And the fact of the matter is, we won those games, we found ways to win. And that’s what makes this team so special, we played in many different ways throughout the year and in the postseason.”
Substitute Victor Rodriguez and masetro Nico Lodeiro combined for a moment of sublime quality to double the lead. Then Raul Ruidiaz showed the poaching qualities that made him a big-money midsummer acquisition from Morelia last year, and at 3-0 with injury time at hand, Hanauer finally felt comfortable enough to begin the celebrations.
When referee Allen Chapman’s final whistle finally sounded, most of the crowd were in no hurry to hit the exits, savoring their team’s on-field jubilation, which continued into a beer-soaked home locker room and well into the evening.
The moment of truth had been faced – “Our team, our club, we don’t operate in the realm of fear,” said an emotional Brian Schmetzer at his postgame press conference – and conquered.
“It’s a pure – it’s a high, you can’t describe it,” said Frei, “to be able to celebrate it with 70,000 people and then everybody realizing the magnitude of such a moment. It’s amazing.
“Not [just] winning the trophy, but for winning it at home with our fans and having that positivity, that joyous moment that you can share with everybody,” he added, “to be able to do it at home and let them enjoy it, I think is probably the biggest gift that we can give and they so deserve it.”
Before Sunday’s final Dave Clark, founder of SounderAtHeart.com and currently a writer with TacDefiance.com, provided some perspective on this moment for Soccer in Seattle.
“It's a huge leap forward. I mean, 20 years ago I was the dorky soccer dude at a sports radio station that got mocked. And now, the sports radio stations, the morning TV, they're forced to cover the Sounders because it's that big of a cultural moment,” he said. “The green that's been on buildings and ferries and bridges, not just in Seattle but throughout the region, it's been impressive. Kind of like nerd culture has become pop culture, the Sounders are pop culture in Seattle. There are other markets where that's true, but not a lot of them, at this scale.
“The Sounders in 2009 thought they'd have 12,000 season tickets and 20,000 per match. And now they're at 36,000 season tickets, 40,000 per match and 70,000-plus for an MLS Cup. The numbers are proving that soccer isn’t an outsider’s game. It’s just a game.”
The celebrations will roll on, perhaps even continuously, through Tuesday’s victory parade. And a wider Sounders community that has already changed the paradigm for North American soccer over the past decade has another high-water mark to point to, a euphoric new measuring stick that might just help push the game forward yet again.